I don’t know how many of my readers have been in a public high school lately, but one of the things I’ve noticed in the schools I’ve been in is the presence of “safe space” signs around the school. They began in response to incidents that happen routinely in schools where a student who is gay, or even thought to be gay, is harrassed and bullied and often assaulted. The signs often have a rainbow motif to them and pink triangles and they say something like this:
This is a safe space to be who you are. This sign affirms that support and resources are available for you in this school.
Along with the appearance of such signs there has also been a remarkable trend in starting “gay-straight clubs” in schools around the country. These are student clubs that provide a forum for gay and straight students can express their support for one another and take a stand against such bullying. In my view, this is a good thing indeed. It’s great to see young people standing up for their own dignity and and that of their friends and saying that they won’t allow anti-gay bigotry to go unanswered.
Of course, others disagree and see this as an endorsement of homosexuality and a threat to God, mom and apple pie. Around the nation, conservative state legislators have tried to ban such clubs but they keep running into the Equal Access Act, a Federal law that forbids schools from discriminating among non-curriculum clubs – the same law, ironically, that allows students in public schools to form Bible clubs as well (and rightly so in both cases). Our old pal Sen. Buttars in Utah is trying to pass such a bill right now. And in San Leandro, California, a school is having a bit of an uproar because some teachers are refusing to put such signs in their classrooms:
A holy war over homosexuality has erupted on the campus of a San Francisco Bay area high school, as five teachers are refusing orders to display a pro-”gay” banner because of their religious beliefs.
The five teachers have not made any public statements at this point, but I suspect there is probably a lawsuit coming, probably backed by the Alliance Defense Fund or the Thomas More Law Center, claiming that requiring them to post such a poster violates their religious freedom. It’s a case they will likely lose. The statement on the posters is not a religious statement and it is made to achieve a perfectly reasonable and constitutional interest, reducing harrassment of students and fostering respect for diversity. The only thing that makes it a religious matter in the eyes of those who are refusing to put the poster up is their religious objections to it.
It would be no different than a Jewish or Muslim teacher refusing to post the school’s lunch menu because it contained pork. More importantly, the classroom is not owned by the teacher, it is owned by the school and the school may put up such signs in the service of a legitimate state interest. A teacher may no more refuse to go along with it than they may refuse to teach something in the curriculum that they object to on religious grounds. By becoming a public school teacher, you agree to abide by the government’s guidelines for what can be taught.